THE FACTS AND MYTHS SURROUNDING JOHN [Jack] CORNWELL VC

A commemorative medal of John [Jack] Cornwell showing his HMS CHESTER cap tally.

A photograph of John [Jack] Cornwell taken during his Part II training in Chatham onboard HMS LANCASTER as a Boy First Class undergoing gunnery training: his Service Number was J/42563.  His joining-up Establishment wherein he did his Part I training as a Boy Second Class, was in HMS VIVID, now called HMS DRAKE , and in naval colloquialism, GUZZ Barracks. The picture was taken just weeks before joining HMS CHESTER on the 2nd May 1916 his first and only active warship, from which, exactly one month to the day [02.06.16] he died.

could be covered in a quiz asking as to who in naval history was buried three times, and used to boost the morale of the navy and the nation after what was considered [and later proven correct] that the Battle of Jutland wasn't the success the British or the Germans claimed.  In fact it was a "slaughter house" with no victor except that it kept the German High Sea Fleet locked away in their various ports for the rest of the war: that is from June 1916 until November 1918, when it returned to what they, the Germans called the GERMAN SEA, and we, properly, called/call, the NORTH SEA, enroute to Scottish waters to surrender to the British Royal Navy. However, we will not be asking quiz questions.

To study the Cornwell story properly, a visit to the National Archives at Kew and the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich is a prerequisite.

The simple story is a nice story and it is not my wish to spoil it in any way. Nevertheless, despite his action [and most probably his intention] to stay at his action station by his gun on the killing fields of the upper deck of HMS Chester, he didn't win his Victoria Cross as a direct act of heroism, although the captain and all on the bridge who witnessed him at his station when all around him was death, destruction and carnage, thought that he was extremely brave.

HMS Chester was severely pounded by the guns of German cruisers and was hit badly seventeen times or more.  John [Jack] Cornwell was severely injured in his chest, the wound from which he would die of.  HMS Chester was ordered from the van back to harbour to the port of Immingham on the River Humber. Cornwell was transferred to the Grimsby hospital where he died on the 2nd June 1916: he was 16 years of age. He was unceremoniously buried in Grimsby in a paupers grave without a stone or a wooden cross. Weeks later, his mother Lily Cornwell successfully arranged that his body be exhumed, put into a naval coffin with due ceremony, and transported to London, to East Ham, where she organised a second burial, but again in a paupers grave, a grave already containing up to a score of bodies, only this time, marked by a simple wooden cross. That would have been that had it not been that the captain of HMS Chester wrote to Lily Cornwell and told her of her sons heroism and that he had recommended an award.

The general public of East London got wind of this boy and his heroism and forced the dignitaries of the Borough to give the boy a funeral fit for a hero. This the Mayor agreed to, and John [Jack] Cornwell was once again exhumed. In July 1916, on the 29th, nearly two months after his death, 'Jack' was given a full naval funeral and a "grand send off" though it was his third in less than 60 days.

  He was reburied in the same cemetery and not too far from his second resting place. He wasn't to rest in total peace until three years later because shortly afterwards, they opened the grave to bury his father, Eli, who had died of bronchitis whilst on active service also in 1916. Three years later in 1919, his dearest mother Lily was also laid to rest in the grave.

This ceremonial naval funeral had attracted much attention throughout the land and manifested itself in many different ways. One of them was to start a Cornwell Memorial Fund, the proceeds of which would provide a ward in the Star and Garter Home at Richmond Surrey, for disabled soldiers, which would bear his name.  The fund, at one point, reached 12,000 an absolute fortune in those day, and just about every child in the British Commonwealth had given a penny of their pocket money to help swell its coffers.

But by far the most important manifestation was the debates going on in the Admiralty in London.

The captain of HMS Chester had submitted a citation hoping for the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross for Boy First Class Cornwell.  The admirals were not convinced and "burned the midnight oil" over the issue for many days.

At that time, in later summer 1916, there was concern in the navy about the morale of the men who had lost so many comrades for so little gained at Jutland. Pay and conditions were also an issue.

Finally, the admiralty [but not all on The Board], as an expedient for raising morale by, as it were, 'engineering something to cheer about', decided that John [Jack] Cornwell should be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, and on the 15th September, the London Gazette published the citation.  There was much jubilation throughout the land as their Lordships had intended.  Thus, were it not for that poor morale in the mid-war years, it is highly probable that the Cross would never have been sanctioned. 

The Cornwell Fund and the Star and Garter ward it paid for and subsequently funded was a great success. Part of the Fund was later to give his siblings a small annual pension, but it wasn't enough to sustain them and in 1922 they emigrated to Canada to seek a new life.

Sadly the Fund was not available to Lily Cornwell, Jack's mother, who, you will recall was widowed in 1916. She became destitute and sank into poverty living in rooms in the East End.  She was found dead by a neighbour when aged 48, but, though wretchedly poor, didn't, as we have seen, end up in a paupers grave.

Knowing the family tree of the Cornwell's is important, because reading web pages like Wikipedia, you will be confused.

 Marked on John's [Jack's] grave stone are the details of his parents. His fathers name and details are correct, but his mother's are not, and Wikipedia, for example, have taken the names from the grave stone at face value.

The name used for the mother is that of Alice and you can see that was Eli's first wife.  It should have been Lily as shown for the second marriage.

That is it then !

Much simpler and much nicer to think that John [Jack] Cornwell had won the V.C., in the traditional manner. In 1968, when aged 78, John's [Jack's] half-sister Alice, gave the V.C., to the Imperial War Museum for safe keeping.

In 2006, the Post Office issued the following stamp, this one scanned from an envelope.  Jack was born on the 8th January 1900.

Click to enlarge

This is the story of the funeral taken from The Times. It is a thumbnail jpeg. To open it first click on the image you see. This is the full jpeg. Now click on it again to open the full digitised newspaper page. Once opened moved the bottom scroll bar over to the right, and with the right hand scroll bar scroll up to the top of the page to start the story. Use your screen zooming tool if required.

Note the blue ribbon on the medal. In August 1918 the Royal Flying Corp and the Royal Naval Air Service were combined to form the Royal Air Force. Until that time the Victoria Cross was issued with two different coloured ribbons.  The Navy had a B L U E ribbon and the Army, a W I N E   R E D [crimson] ribbon.  All living naval VC holders had to change over from blue to wine red [crimson] ribbons at the end of WW1. The papers on this matter are very interesting and are part of my extensive library.  They can be viewed at the National Archives under the file ADM 116/1811.